Even though the concept of multilingualism is well established in linguistics, it is problematic, especially in light of the actual ways in which repertoires are composed and used. The term “multilingualism” bears in itself the notion of several clearly discernable languages and suggests that regardless of the sociolinguistic setting, language ideologies, social history and context, a multilingual individual will be able to separate the various codes that constitute his or her communicative repertoire and use them deliberately in a reflected way. Such a perspective on language isn’t helpful in understanding any sociolinguistic setting and linguistic practice that is not a European one and that doesn’t correlate with ideologies and practices of a standardized, national language. This applies to the majority of people living on the planet and to most people who speak African languages. These speakers differ from the ideological concept of the “Western monolingual,” as they employ diverse practices and linguistic features on a daily basis and do so in a very flexible way. Which linguistic features a person uses thereby depends on factors such as socialization, placement, and personal interest, desires and preferences, which are all likely to change several times during a person’s life. Therefore, communicative repertoires are never stable, neither in their composition nor in the ways they are ideologically framed and evaluated. A more productive perspective on the phenomenon of complex communicative repertoires puts the concept of languaging in the center, which refers to communicative practices, dynamically operating between different practices and (multimodal) linguistic features. Individual speakers thereby perceive and evaluate ways of speaking according to the social meaning, emotional investment, and identity-constituting functions they can attribute to them. The fact that linguistic reflexivity to African speakers might almost always involve the negotiation of the self in a (post)colonial world invites us to consider a critical evaluation, based on approaches such as Southern Theory, of established concepts of “language” and “multilingualism”: languaging is also a postcolonial experience, and this experience often translates into how speakers single out specific ways of speaking as “more prestigious” or “more developed” than others. The inclusion of African metalinguistics and indigenuous knowledge consequently is an important task of linguists studying communicative repertoires in Africa or its diaspora.
Pierpaolo Di Carlo, Jeff Good, and Rachel Ojong Diba
The pervasiveness of multilingualism throughout the African continent has led it to be viewed as Africa’s “lingua franca.” Nevertheless, sociolinguistic research on this topic has concentrated mostly on urbanized areas, even though the majority of Africans still live in rural regions, and rural multilingualism is clearly of much older provenance than its urban counterpart. In urban domains, individual language repertoires are dominated by the interplay between European ex-colonial languages, African lingua francas, and local languages, and language ideologies emphasize the ordering of languages in a hierarchy that is tied to social status. The situation in rural areas is clearly distinct, though it has yet to be thoroughly investigated. Early work on language use in rural Africa tended to background the presence of multilingualism and was dominated by an approach that viewed each community (or “tribe”) as having its own language. Thanks to the progressive adoption of ethnographic methods of inquiry, facilitated by language documentation research especially since the beginning of the 21st century, it has been possible to more effectively study areas of high linguistic diversity in West and Central Africa which demonstrate that multilingualism plays an integral role in structuring social relations. Available case studies document the presence of individuals with linguistic repertoires that are primarily oriented around local languages, ideologies, and practices and that do not clearly fit with what is known from urban environments. The most important theme that emerges from this work is the extent to which rural multilingualism is linked to the specific dynamics holding among communities that are near to each other rather than being a reflection of a more general, externally imposed value system. While this result makes it difficult to characterize rural multilingualism as a single, coherent phenomenon, it does point to the utility of a shared toolkit of research strategies for exploring it in more detail. In particular, ethnographic methods are required in order to ascertain the major local social divisions which language choice both reflects and constructs in these areas, and it is additionally important to focus on how individual repertoires are tied to specific life histories rather than to assume that groupings that are salient to the outside researcher (e.g., “villages” or “compounds”) are the relevant units of analysis. Finally, investigation of multilingualism in rural Africa is not only valuable for what it reveals about social dynamics on the continent, but it also seems likely to yield important insights for the study of sociolinguistics more broadly.
Judith T. Irvine
In the indigenous sociolinguistic systems of West Africa, an important way of expressing—and creating—social hierarchy in interaction is through intermediaries: third parties, through whom messages are relayed. The forms of mediation vary by region, by the scale of the social hierarchy, and by the ways hierarchy is locally understood. In larger-scale systems where hierarchy is elaborate, the interacting parties include a high-status person, a mediator who ranks lower, and a third person or group—perhaps another dignitary, but potentially anyone. In smaller-scale, more egalitarian societies, the (putative) interactants could include an authoritative spirit represented by a mask, the mask’s bearer, a “translator,” and an audience. In all these systems, mediated interactions may also involve distinctive registers or vocalizations. Meanwhile, the interactional structure and its characteristic ways of speaking offer tropes and resources for expressing politeness in everyday talk. In the traditions connected with precolonial kingdoms and empires, professional praise orators deliver eulogistic performances for their higher-status patrons. This role is understood as transmission—transmitting a message from the past, or from a group, or from another dignitary—more than as creating a composition from whole cloth. The transmitter amplifies and embellishes the message; he or she does not originate it. In addition to their formal public performances, these orators serve as interpreters and intermediaries between their patrons and their patrons’ visitors. Speech to the patron is relayed through the interpreter, even if the original speaker and the patron are in the same room. Social hierarchy is thus expressed as interactional distance. In the Sahel, these social hierarchies involve a division of labor, including communicative labor, in a complex system of ranked castes and orders. The praise orators, as professional experts in the arts of language and communication, are a separate, low-ranking category (known by the French term griot). Some features of griot performance style, and the contrasting—sometimes even disfluent—verbal conduct of high-ranking aristocrats, carry over into speech registers used by persons of any social category in situations evoking hierarchy (petitioning, for example). In indigenous state systems further south, professional orators are not a separate caste, and chiefs are also supposed to have verbal skills, although still using intermediaries. Special honorific registers, such as the esoteric Akan “palace speech,” are used in the chief’s court. Some politeness forms in everyday Akan usage today echo these practices. An example of a small-scale society is the Bedik (Senegal-Guinea border), among whom masked dancers serve as the visible and auditory representation of spirit beings. The mask spirits, whose speech and conduct contrasts with their bearers’ ordinary behavior, require “translators” to relay their messages to addressees. This too is mediated communication, involving a multi-party interactional structure as well as distinctive vocalizations. Linguistic repertoires in the Sahel have long included Arabic, and Islamic learning is another source of high status, coexisting with other traditional sources and sharing some interactional patterns. The European conquest brought European languages to the top of West African linguistic hierarchies, which have remained largely in place since independence.
Elizabeth Lanza and Hirut Woldemariam
The linguistic landscape (henceforth LL) has proven to be a fruitful approach for investigating various societal dimensions of written language use in the public sphere. First introduced in the context of bilingual Canada as a gauge for measuring ethnolinguistic vitality, in the 21st century it is the focus of a thriving field of inquiry with its own conference series, an increasing number of publications, and an international journal dedicated exclusively to investigating language and other semiotic resources used in the public arena. The scholarship in this domain has centered on European and North American geographical sites; however, an increasingly voluminous share of studies addresses the LL of sites across the world through both books and articles. African contributions have added an important dimension to this knowledge base as southern multilingualisms bring into question the very concept of language in that speakers and writers draw on their rich linguistic repertoires, avoiding any compartmentalization or separation of what is traditionally conceived of as languages. The LL of Ethiopia has contributed to this growing base of empirical studies in the exploration of language policy issues, identity constructions, language contact, and the sociolinguistics of globalization. A new language policy of ethnic federalism was introduced to the country in the 1990s following a civil war and through a new constitution. This policy was set to recognize the various ethnolinguistic groups in the country and the official use of ethnic/regional languages to satisfy local political and educational needs. Through this, languages previously unwritten required a script in order for speakers to communicate in them in written texts. And many regions have chosen the Latin script above the Ethiopic script. Nonetheless, some languages remain invisible in the public sphere. These events create an exciting laboratory for studying the LL. Given the change of language policy since the late 20th century and the fast-growing economy of Ethiopia (one of the poorest countries on the continent) the manifest and increasingly visible display of languages in the LL provides an excellent lens for studying various sociolinguistic phenomena.
As elsewhere in the world, languages in Africa are endangered. The estimates for language loss on a world scale likely hold for Africa as well. Although the particular group of factors at work in Africa may be unique, they come from a well-established inventory familiar elsewhere. The forces reducing African language diversity come from the combination of a set of macro socioeconomic factors and historical events, such as colonization and globalization, coupled with local factors such as military conquest and misguided government policies. Simple demographic factors, such as number of speakers, are also important: the less widely spoken languages are more severely threatened than are those spoken more widely. The shift from African languages is to both European languages and the more widely spoken languages on the continent. Shifts also occur to localized or appropriated versions of the two. Climatic factors, most notably global warming, have played and will continue to play a role as well; the correlation between biological and linguistic diversity has often been remarked. For example, with the growth of plantation economies and the destruction of rain forests, there is a concomitant reduction in linguistic diversity.
The concept of Africa requires reflection: what does it mean to study a social phenomenon “in Africa”? Technology use in Africa is complex and diverse, showing various degrees of access across the continent (and in the Diaspora, and digital social inequalities—which are part and parcel of the political economy of communication—shape digital engagement. The rise of mobile phones, in particular, has enabled the emergence of technologically mediated literacies, text-messaging among them. Text-messaging is defined not only by a particular mode of communication (typically written on mobile phones, visual, digital), but it also favors particular topics (intimate, relational, sociable, ludic) and ways of writing (short, non-standard texts that are creative as well as multilingual). The genre of text-messaging thus includes not only short message service (SMS) and (mobile) instant-messaging (which one might call prototypical one-to-one text messages), but also Twitter, an application that, like texting, favors brevity of expression and allows for one-to-many conversations. Access to Twitter is still limited for many Africans, but as ownership of smartphones is growing, so is Twitter use, and the African “Twittersphere” is emerging as an important pan-African space. At times, discussions are very local (as on Ghanaian Twitter), at other times regional (East African Twitter) or global (African Twitter and Black Twitter); all these are emic, folksonomic terms, assigned and discussed by users. Although former colonial languages, especially English, dominate in many prototypical text messages and on Twitter, the genre also provides important opportunities for writing in African languages. The choices made in the digital space echo the well-known debate between Chinua Achebe and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o: the Africanization of the former colonial languages versus writing in African languages. In addition, digital writers engage in multilingual writing, combining diverse languages in one text, and thus offer new ways of writing locally as well as shaping a digitally-mediated pan-African voice that draws on global strategies as well as local meaning.